EastEnders: Samantha Womack on Ronnie’s return, soap controversy and Scott Maslen’s exit

"I didn’t want Ronnie to come back as the same damaged creature. I think the audience has seen enough of that"

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Two years on from being jailed after kidnapping Kat Moon’s son Tommy during the high profile baby swap plot, Ronnie Mitchell is back.

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Her release from prison kicks off a five-night run of EastEnders over consecutive evenings that sees Samantha Womack return to the soap for the first time since 2011. Here, the actress talks about reprising the role that created such controversy, being reunited with co-star Scott Maslen and what the future holds for Ronnie.

So, did you need much persuading to come back?
I felt that there was unfinished business. It had been bugging me because I felt like she’d lost her way so I wanted her to come back and gain strength. She definitely needed a rest – I felt that the character and her storylines had exhausted themselves and I couldn’t have stayed on screen with the situation that happened. There was nowhere for her to go. But it feels now that, because of the time away, I can come back with new boots on. 

Did the controversy surrounding the baby swap storyline take you by surprise?
Not really. It’s that type of show. Some of the storylines we were doing were getting 14 million viewers, so attention goes with the territory. We were depicting the actions of one specific person who had endured one trauma and loss after another. I think that needed to be clarified more and I hope that towards the end we were able to do that. 

Do you think that, in retrospect, EastEnders got it wrong?
It’s hard to say because controversy comes with any sensational storyline. I don’t know how much of it was press led. It wasn’t as if I walked out of my door and 3000 people were throwing nappies at me. The people who spoke to me were saying, “Oh God, you poor thing. All you do is cry! Pop in and have a cup of tea!” I didn’t get any animosity but when sensitive issues like that are dealt with in storylines, it’s very difficult to get it right.

Are you just staying for six months or will you stick around for longer?
I’ve signed a six-month contract because I didn’t know if the character was going to succeed. It’s really tricky trying to go back and recapture something that was successful and I didn’t want to be flogging a dead horse. So we’ll regroup in six months and talk about whether she’s succeeded or not.

So how is Ronnie going to be feeling when she’s released from prison?
I didn’t want her to come back as the same damaged creature. I think the audience has seen enough of that. I’m crying out to see that steely Mitchell sister back again, but there does have to be some echoes of what happened to her. So you get to see her gaining strength as she goes on.

Tell us about that moment where she steps out from behind those prison gates…
We did it at a real prison and I had to stand on my own in this courtyard where all the inmates were while the camera crew waited on the other side. So I could hear all these cries of “all right Ronnie!” and “get back inside!”, which made it all very menacing. Then you had the sound of the locks, the bolts and the keys, which really added to the mood. It felt quite surreal to be in that environment.

And what’s the scene like when Ronnie comes face to face with Kat?
It needed to be mature because of the subject matter and all the controversy. We’re trying to make sure we’re executing it properly in that it’s two women talking about their feelings and their experiences. That was very important to everyone. We didn’t think fighting and screaming would be apt for that situation.

Was it easy to get back into the role?
On my first day back, I felt completely ill-prepared. It was very strange because I’d just finished doing Mount Pleasant for Sky where my character is very smiley and over the top. And, of course, Ronnie is very different to that. Luckily, my first scene was with Scott Maslen and all the work’s done for you when you’ve got such a history with someone. So he spoke and then I was straight back into it. It was a really cool first scene for me to do.

Is there anyone on the cast with whom you’d like to have more scenes?
I really like what I’ve seen Michael French doing [the character of David Wicks is set to return this autumn]. And I also like Danielle Harold’s energy – she’s edgy, which I think is quite unusual for a younger actress. In fact, one of the requests that I had when I came back was to do some scenes with Lola.

So is Ronnie forming different alliances this time around?
Yes. For me it’s all about the Mitchell clan. I did a scene recently where Ronnie is rallying the troops in the kitchen. It was very exciting because it felt like the old days, with the Mitchells getting back together and dusting themselves off.

And what’s it like when Ronnie sees Jack?
Well, the same as it was for me seeing Scott.  We’ve got so much history – on screen and off – and I feel such a huge loyalty to him. Our characters were very successful together. There are tribute videos on YouTube to Ronnie and Jack that I secretly watch They’re really good! I get quite weepy because they’re set to sad tear-jerking music. And, of course, Scott has been filming his exit and I wanted to come back and serve that storyline. It wouldn’t have felt right for Jack to leave without Ronnie being there.

Will we see Ronnie butting heads with Sharon?
I’m very fond of Letitia because, funnily enough, her mum was my school matron. I was in trouble with Mrs Dean quite a lot! And even though there is animosity between Sharon and Ronnie, it’s done in a slightly comedic way. It’s not two women shouting. It’s softer than that. It’s nice.

Is it awkward for Ronnie now that Roxy is engaged to Alfie?
Yes, it’s a little awkward! He’s not invited her to be a bridesmaid! Obviously, we’ve got to deal with that storyline quite sensibly, so Alfie feels very threatened and protective towards his child – as you would be – and we need to execute that as realistically as possible. I don’t know how long it will go on for, but it does make it difficult for the two sisters to be back together again.

You’re one of a couple of actors returning [Michael French and Barbara Windsor are also both reprising their roles], so why do you think actors come back to EastEnders?
I can only speak for myself, but there’s something incredibly seductive about creating a character as popular as that and returning to take charge of her again. You feel a massive sense of ownership.  I played her for three years and I was in heavy storylines for a lot of that time. So I left and got to do lots of other things, but coming back now feels fresh. It feels like there’s a lot of history there but that I’m still creating something new.

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Samantha Womack returns to EastEnders in the episode airing on Monday 9 September